On the Style of Jonathan Swift, by Samuel Johnson

"He always understands himself, and his readers always understand him"

Portrait of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) by Joshua Reynolds. (DEA Picture Library/Getty Images)

English writer, critic, lexicographer, and conversationalist, Samuel Johnson was one of the most brilliant and prolific literary figures of his day. (Literary critics sometimes characterize the 18th century as "the Age of Johnson.") This concise analysis of the writing style of Jonathan Swift first appeared in Johnson's ten-volume Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779-1781). After reading Swift's "A Modest Proposal," decide if you agree with Johnson's assessment of Swift's style.

On the Style of Jonathan Swift

by Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784)

In [Swift's] works, he has given very different specimens both of sentiment and expression. His "Tale of a Tub" has little resemblance to his other pieces. It exhibits a vehemence and rapidity of mind, a copiousness of images, and vivacity of diction, such as he afterwards never possessed, or never exerted. It is of a mode so distinct and peculiar, that it must be considered by itself; what is true of that, is not true of any thing else which he has written.

In his other works is found an equable tenor of easy language, which rather trickles than flows. His delight was in simplicity. That he has in his works no metaphor, as has been said, is not true; but his few metaphors seem to be received rather by necessity than choice. He studied purity; and though perhaps all his strictures are not exact, yet it is not often that solecisms can be found; and whoever depends on his authority may generally conclude himself safe.

His sentences are never too much dilated or contracted; and it will not be easy to find any embarrassment in the complication of his clauses, any inconsequence in his connections, or abruptness in his transitions.

His style was well suited to his thoughts, which are never subtilised by nice disquisitions, decorated by sparkling conceits, elevated by ambitious sentences, or variegated by far-sought learning.

He pays no court to the passions; he excites neither surprise nor admiration; he always understands himself, and his readers always understand him: the peruser of Swift wants little previous knowledge; it will be sufficient that he is acquainted with common words and common things; he is neither required to mount elevations nor to explore profundities; his passage is always on a level, along solid ground, without asperities, without obstruction.

This easy and safe conveyance of meaning it was Swift's desire to attain, and for having attained he deserves praise, though perhaps not the highest praise. For purposes merely didactic, when something is to be told that was not known before, it is the best mode, but against that inattention by which known truths are suffered to lie neglected it makes no provision; it instructs, but does not persuade.